Friday, July 26, 2013

the beautiful grace of confession

A dear Evangelical Protestant friend asked me,
"I have always wondered about confession. We have a direct line to God, so why do Catholics need a priest to absolve their sins? Why does the priest have this power to forgive on God's behalf?"
GREAT question!

I wondered the same thing for many years. I thought, "Oh those poor deceived Catholics and their man-made rituals - they don't even realize they could just go straight to God to confess their sins." I thought that the Catholic Church had at some point in history invented this man-made ritual of confessing their sins to a priest when what the Bible really said was that you could go straight to God to have your sins forgiven.

The Catholic Church teaches that you can go directly to God for forgiveness of sins. Yes, you read that correctly. Technically, you don't have to go to a priest to have your sins forgiven. You can go straight to God through our "direct line".

I hope you don't think I'm kidding. I didn't believe it myself when I first learned this.

We can go directly to God, but because of our fleshly nature, Jesus gave us another way to help us with special graces granted by God.

Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance on the first Easter right after He appeared to the Apostles. In John 20:21 Jesus says to the Apostles, "As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." Here Jesus passes on His authority to the Apostles to forgive sins.

John 20:22-23 goes on, "And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." The only other moment in the Bible where God breathes on man is in Genesis 2:7 when God "breathes" life into man. When this happens in Genesis, there is a significant transformation.

In order for the Apostles (this is where I should mention that today's Catholic bishops are direct succession to the Apostles, which can be traced back through history) to exercise this gift of forgiving sins, the penitents must orally communicate their sins to the Apostles (they aren't mind readers).

So I've just shown where the Bible tells us that we are to confess our sins to a priest, and Jesus in fact instructs us to do so. Can we go to God directly? Sure! So why should we confess our sins to a priest?

Let me pause for a moment and tell you about a growing trend in Evangelical Protestantism. A popular mens group, Promise Keepers, was started in 1990 and brought back the idea of accountability for the purpose of breaking the strongholds of addiction that sin can take on us when we keep sins hidden. Since then, other Christian groups have caught hold of this idea of accountability. You can mostly find confession to an accountability partner encouraged in cases of frequent, recurring sin, often times when the sin has taken root and lead to sinful addictions.

For example, on the "Confession and Accountability" section of Pure Life Ministry's website, ministers emphasize the importance of accountability when it comes to overcoming sexual addictions. They stress is in absolutely key to escaping the darkness that comes with hidden sin. Unconfessed sin leads to self deception about their sin, which in turn causes them to be "quite satisfied with their current spiritual progress, they don't see their need to repent, nor do they even detect the weight of sin which has stagnated their walk with the Lord." (from "The Weight of Unconfessed Sin")

The trend of rising popularity of Accountability Partners in Protestant faiths is due to a timeless truth - the special graces given to us by God - also fully available in the Sacrament of Confession instituted by Jesus on the first Easter. We can confess our sins directly to God, but He also give us a special grace through His Sacrament of Confession. Some benefits of this special grace of confession are:
  • genuine self-knowledge is increased
  • Christian humility grows
  • bad habits are corrected
  • spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted
  • the conscience is purified
  • the will strengthened
  • a salutary self-control is attained
  • grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself
I cannot condemn Accountability Partner for Protestants. In fact, I feel they are a type of the real thing. But I'd rather have the fullness encompassed in the real thing - confession as it was designed  by Jesus. I can tell you from experience that the grace God gives through this sacrament is extremely liberating. By the grace of God I have been able to overcome sins which had become habitual. Jesus knew it would be this way - that confession to a priest would be a special grace in our lives - and He gave it to us out of His perfect love.

I hope this clarifies questions that may arise about the sacrament of confession. Feel free to bring up any further questions you have. I know this is a lot to chew on, and I'm quite sure that my brief explanation will not answer all questions about the sacrament of penance!


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